The Occupation and Destruction of Saborsko

Saborsko, a village near Plitvice Lakes became one of the symbols of resistance to Greater Serbian aggression in 1991. Already in the summer of 1991, the Saborsko area found itself practically surrounded because as the only link with unoccupied Croatia it was often the target of ambushes by rebel Serbs. The Battle of Saborsko lasted exactly 100 days and the media brought attention to its difficult position, often comparing it to the sieges of Vukovar and Dubrovnik.

If it doesn’t receive help, this brave village could suffer a terrible fate as it is surrounded by an enemy with such military might that nobody can believe how the inhabitants of Saborsko have been able to resist for months now.

As reported in Novi list on 16 November 1991, unaware that four days earlier the village had been occupied, looted, and devastated. After five days of intense preparations, a combined attack on Saborsko began in the morning hours of 12 November as air strikes were followed by artillery, infantry and tank assaults.

The multi-pronged attack came from two main directions, Plaški via Lička Jesenica and Plitvice. In total, over 1,500 enemy infantry, four tank companies and three MIG 21 fighter jets took part in the attack. The village was defended by about 200 poorly armed defenders of the Saborsko War Unit that also included members of the Croatian National Guard (CNG) as well as the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Croatia.

At approximately 12:00 PM, the Saborsko’s first line of defense was breached and the village was occupied four hours later. Most of the defenders and civilians managed to escape to free territory, some to Ogulin and others to Bosnia-Herzegovina, under very difficult conditions. Fifteen of Saborsko’s defenders were killed on 12 November 1991.

My mother told me that she forgot her money, documents and purse and without thinking I went home through the cornfield. I entered the house, took the purse and my youthful curiosity drew me to the attic of our multi-story home where I had a good view of the village.  I saw that the village was burning and two tanks on Alan Hill were firing upon it… I saw a tank turn its turret towards my house and fire a shell at the current municipal building about 50 metres away from me. We spent that first night in the forest with civilians and some soldiers and in the early hours of the morning we set off for Slunj. We walked through the woods all day and at one point a military helicopter appeared and noticed us. In panic and fear, we move faster, and after a while the Yugoslav People’s Army MIG jets bombed the location where the helicopter saw us. Along with a large number of civilians there were only about 15 of us soldiers, of which more than half were minors like me… I regret not shooting down a helicopter when I had the chance but the older soldiers would not allow me to. We walked through the woods all day and in the evening entered the military range and passed through enemy lines. We arrived at a Croatian place outside of Slunj in the early morning and at approximately 6:00 AM we were picked up by buses and taken to Slunj where we were accommodated in a hotel and handed over our weapons to town’s defenders.

Goran Matovina, defender of Saborsko

The destruction of Saborsko began immediately after it was occupied. According to the data of the Commission for the Assessment and Inventory of War Damage, a total of 1,171 houses and farm buildings were demolished and burned in the Saborsko area. Apart from the burning, looting and demolition of all privately owned residential and commercial structures in Saborsko, all of the local infrastructure and public buildings (local community building, school, post office) were damaged and demolished while explosives completely destroyed the church of Sv. Ivan Nepomuk built in 1864.

After the fall of Saborsko, 25 civilians were killed of which 17 were females. The fact that the crimes in Ovčara, Vukovar, Saborsko and Škabrnja were at the center of Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia speaks volumes about the scale of the crimes that took place in Saborsko.

Vuković, Ivan. “Općina Ogulin u Domovinskom ratu”. Graduation thesis, University of Zagreb, 2015

Ico Mikuličić: „10 000 granata na Saborsko“ Novi list (Rijeka), November 16, 1991, 11.

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